I visited Detroit this week to help raise funds for Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice program. It’s rare that I bring up our EJ work without hearing someone compliment Rhonda Anderson.
Rhonda Anderson is committed to the residents of 48217, a Detroit neighborhood listed as "Michigan's most polluted zip code" by a University of Michigan study, and the rest of the United States should be committed to them as well.
A long-time Sierra Club Environmental Justice organizer, Rhonda says even when small advances are made, the neighborhood’s vast dirty industries still loom.
"It's hard in an area with so much industry - our wasterwater plant here has 16 incinerators, and that's just the beginning," Rhonda says, adding that there are also oil refineries, municipal incinerators, a gypsum facility, and much more in the neighborhood.
"The way I see it is, these are the additional burdens from dirty energy, and these residents live in its shadow. You can’t go to the gas pump or turn on your light switch and not think about all the other effects our fossil fuel addiction has on communities."
The latest modicum of good news she's very cautiously optimistic about is the news that the Marathon Oil refinery will be buying out 13 homes because of extremely dangerous indoor air quality levels.
"One young woman brought air samples from inside her home, and the levels were so alarming that the lab contacted us and said, 'Get this woman out of the house,'" Rhonda says.
After the initial tests, Rhonda and her team brought in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the city, and the state to do testing. Then Marathon did similar test. All showed the same results: Two times the level regarded "safe" for more than 20 gases, with the three highest gas levels being benzene, ethyl benzene, and hydrogen sulfide.
"You can't even begin to imagine this situation," said Rhonda. "These are not only gases coming up in their basements, but they also hydrogen sulfide coming up from sewer lines in front of homes."
So the good news is that the buyout is coming, but the bad news is that it's not happening right away.
"This buyout will take Marathon at least another year to complete, and during this time these residents are still living there. I visit them all regularly, and they’re depressed to be stuck in these homes in the meantime."
Then it was announced that Marathon would buy out another 420 homes in the neighborhood due to its refinery expansion plans - another project Rhonda's been working on for years.
Rhonda does get frustrated. "You want the city you live in to move into a new area, a new energy, but too many are stuck in the past."
Rhonda, the 48217 residents, and the environmental justice organizers soldier on in a community plagued by dirty, dangerous industry.
"We’ve done a small survey, and as we went through community, one issue that was so consistent was cancer. Just about every house we went to, someone had died from cancer or was diagnosed with it - one of our activists, 17 people in her block have died of cancer," Rhonda says. "We're trying now to get the state of Michigan to do a cancer cluster study."
Rhonda hopes the rest of the Detroit, the state, and all Americans think about the effects of fossil fuels.
"You want to help? Investigate. Listen. Read (48217's) story - it's been reported on a lot here. And then do something.
"Above all, lots of times we think, 'Oh, it's those people over there who are affected. But it's in all our air and water. We’re foolin' ourselves if we're thinking it's just those people over there. It's affecting all of us."